A PROFESSIONAL JOB

Crossing the Simpson Desert in Mercedes-Benz’s G-Wagen.

WORDS MATT RAUDONIKIS PHOTOS ALEX RAE

MERCEDES-BENZ’S iconic G-Wagen was developed more than 40 years ago to transport militaries across the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East, so it’s only fitting that when a new variant arrived in Australia, Benz chose to take it to the desert.

Despite a much-publicised 2011 expedition on the Canning Stock Route, where failed shock absorbers brought the media convoy to a halt, Benz has been brave enough to do it again, this time choosing an east-to-west crossing of the Simpson Desert.

The new variant is the G300 CDI Professional wagon, which joins the cabchassis variant as the workhorse models in the G range. The G-Pro wagon uses the same 3.0-litre diesel V6 engine, five-speed automatic transmission, full-time 4x4 and triple difflocked driveline as the cab-chassis, in a barebones four-seat, five-door wagon.

The desert convoy included three G300 wagons and two cab-chassis variants, as well as two left-hand drive G500 wagons belonging to explorer Mike Horn, who joined us to make this trip. Drivers came from media outlets around the world, most of whom had never even been to Australia before, let alone visited

FULL-TIME 4X4 AND TRIPLE DIFF LOCKS IN A BARE-BONES FOUR-SEAT WAGON

the remote and rugged terrain of the Outback.

As the convoy filed out of Birdsville the newbies were given a baptism of sand as we hit Big Red, the biggest of the 1100-odd sand dunes, that marks the eastern edge of the Simpson. With tyre pressure dropped, they soon learned the capabilities of the vehicles and the workings of the low-range transmission and differential locks.

G-Wagen expert and factory test driver Erwin Wonisch was on hand to help with the in-the-field training, and it wasn’t long before everyone was an expert and we ventured farther west.

The new experiences for the international contingent continued when the sun went down, as they rolled out swags for the first time and spent their first night under the stars, where the Milky Way shines brighter than anywhere else.

The adventure took three days to reach Dalhousie Springs via The QAA Line, French Line, Poeppel Corner, Knolls Track and the WAA

Barred

The Professional wagons have a steel bullbar as standard.

The roof rack is optional.

WITH ITS LONGER WHEELBASE, THE CAB-CHASSIS RIDES BETTER AND AMBLED OVER DUNES

G300CDI CAB-CHASSIS

MERCEDES-BENZ released the cabchassis Professional to Australia last year, and we are the only market on the planet to get it. While we praised the truck for its ease of use and heavy 2.4-tonne payload, we were critical of its stiff-riding chassis and rough ride quality. This was noted both unladen and with a tonne on the tray.

Since it was launched, Benz has looked at these criticisms and is working on a softer suspension package that might be offered as an option in the future.

However, something that has already been implemented on the truck is a new pair of rear shock absorbers that are 15mm longer. 15mm mightn’t sound a lot, but the change appears to have transformed the cab-chassis models that were used on this trip. These vehicles also had close to 1.5-tonnes on them – aluminium canopies, tools and supplies – but we spent a day driving one on the WAA line and loved it.

In fact, it has become a favourite of the two-model G-Professional range. With its longer wheelbase over the wagon, the cab-chassis rides better and ambled up and over dunes, was comfortable on the rough tracks, and hauled the load needed to support and feed the crew on this trip.

Swap out those toolboxes for a serious camper and the G-Pro cab-chassis could be the perfect expedition rig.

g500

German number plates stood out on Mike’s LHD G500s (right) in the Outback.

Line. The Gs took on the dunes with ease and ate up the flatter track sections. The loaded cab-chassis felt the best in the rough stuff, while the bellowing V8s of the G500s sounded killer as they roared up the dunes.

After a warm swim and quick shower at Dalhousie, the trip broke north to explore the history of Old Andado Station and be regaled around the campfire by caretaker Cobby Bob’s bush poetry. Mount Dare to Finke and some rocky private property tracks near Mount Ooraminna showed the Outback in a vastly different light to the sandy deserts of the days previous, but the jewel in the crown lay ahead as the journey was completed under the massive rock domes of Uluru – Kata Tjuta.

The seven G-Wagens covered more than 3000 Outback kilometres (when you include the drive to Birdsville from the east coast) without a fault – and all shock absorbers worked as they should, to the relief

THE SEVEN G-WAGENS COVERED MORE THAN 3000 OUTBACK KM WITHOUT A FAULT

THE WORLD’S GREATEST EXPLORER

MIKE Horn has faced a firing squad in the Congo, been sat on by a polar bear in the Arctic, and circumnavigated the globe under his own steam the long way around as he followed the equator for its full length. So ‘the world’s greatest modern-day explorer’ is a title he has earned through hard work and a true spirit of adventure.

South African-born but now residing in Switzerland (during those rare moments when he is at home), Mike’s life is comprised of one expedition after another, and that has taken him to the extremes of the planet. Mike joined us for the Simpson Desert crossing with his daughter Jessica and their two G500 Benzes. This was the next leg in his current Pole to Pole expedition, which started in Monaco in May.

From the lifestyle capital of the rich and famous, he sailed his custom-built yacht Pangea down the west coast of Africa to Namibia, where he picked up his G-Wagens and drove via deserts and jungles to South Africa. From here it was back on the boat to sail to Antarctica for a not-so-casual solo crossing on skis via the South Pole that took 55 days, before getting back on the boat to sail up to us in Australia, via New Zealand.

The journey from Australia will take Mike to New Guinea, through Asia where he hopes to bag a couple of as-yet unclimbed 7000-metre peaks, all the way up to the Arctic where he will again cross the Pole solo, before returning to the start point in Monaco. It’s a two-year adventure that will put Mike on six of the seven continents of the world.

You can follow the expedition via the website at: www.mikehorn.com/pole-2-pole

of the Mercedes-Benz Australia team. The G-Pro 461 vehicles use a heavier duty oil-filled shock absorber rather than the gas-filled AMG shocks on the 463 Gs that failed on the Canning, and these are obviously better suited to the punishing Australian terrain. The torturous terrain didn’t even claim a tyre on this trip, as the Professionals are all fitted with BF Goodrich allterrain tyres on 16-inch alloy wheels as standard.

It’s this standard equipment, along with its simple and pure design, that makes the G-Professional the obvious choice for expedition work like this desert trip. While they may miss out on the luxury features of the 463 models, the Professionals have the gear you really need for remote-area touring.

tyres

The BFG KO2 tyres coped well with the harsh tracks and driver abuse.

DESERT STORM

Drivers from Europe, Dubai, Japan and Australia took on the desert.

THE G-FATHER

ANOTHER special guest on this journey was a man who could only be described as the G-Father. Erwin Wonisch has worked on the G-Wagen since 1975, before the fi rst production vehicle was revealed in 1979.

In the ’70s, Erwin worked in the workshop at Steyr-Daimler-Puch in Graz, Austria, where the G-Wagen was being developed and is still made to this day. In 1975 he moved to the engineering team developing the prototypes.

“I drove the fourth and fi fth prototypes,” Erwin recalled. “And I drove the fi rst production one.”

That fi rst G-Wagen was a soft-top 460 model and was meant to be delivered to the Shah of Persia.

“The idea [for the G-Wagen] was from the Jeep,” Erwin explained. “The Shah of Persia wanted a Jeep, but [as a Mercedes- Benz customer] he wanted a Jeep from Mercedes.”

Unfortunately for the Shah, by the time that fi rst G rolled off the line in ’79, he had been overthrown by Islamists and been forced to fl ee into exile.

“The fi rst big customer for the G was the Argentinian army,” Erwin said. The Argies ordered 4000 of the robust vehicles.

The G-Wagen has become the vehicle of choice for militaries around the world, including the Australian Defence Force in recent years. A big part of Erwin’s job as G-Wagen driver is showing the vehicle to the military personnel, training them and training the local trainers. The job takes him around the world, for cold-weather testing in Sweden, training in South America and the Middle East, and hot-weather testing in North Africa.

Mercedes-Benz poached Erwin from Steyr-Daimler-Puch eight years ago – “I was costing Mercedes too much to hire,” he said of the move – but his role with G-Wagen remains very similar. He was with us on the Canning Stock Route when the G returned here in 2011, and there have been further trips for training and development.

This was his fi fth visit to Australia and we don’t think it will be Erwin’s last.

Erwin also gets to show off the vehicles

he calls ‘my babies’ for the media. He was involved in the fi lming for Top Gear when they took the G63 AMG 6x6 through a water park in Dubai, and he was behind the wheel for the video clip of the G500 4x4² in Chile (worth looking up on YouTube). He was also involved in the development of these vehicles as well as other special vehicles such as the LAPV 5.4 and 6.1, which we sampled here a few years back.

From the original G460 through to the current 461 and 463 models and the special vehicles, there isn’t a G-Wagen that Erwin hasn’t been involved with or driven. There wouldn’t be another person on the planet who knows the G-Wagen better than he does. And, even after more than 40 years on the product, he isn’t slowing down.

2018 will see the release of a new 463 G-Wagen, which will be the fi rst to do away with the iconic live axles front and rear and have independent front suspension, plus a raft of new technologies. Of course, Erwin has been driving it already and will be there for the launch.

Erwin called it “a new generation. It is still 463 but is a different car. I have driven it a lot and it is still in engineering and development.”

The purists will be happy to know that Erwin assured us that there will still be a 461 with live axles, but, without revealing too much, he also stated that the new car is more capable off-road. It will be a vehicle to watch out for and we hope to see Erwin there to show us its abilities.